As a Web developer who has worked with various platforms including Java, Lotus Domino, and now Microsoft, I am often overwhelmed by the number of development tools and options streaming out of Redmond. Here’s a rundown of the current Microsoft products that are available for building Web-based applications.

  • Expression Web Designer: The Expression product line offers the full gamut of products for building both Web and Windows applications. It builds upon the ease-of-use of FrontPage to provide a powerful development tool. The Expression Web Designer promises a strong adherence to Web standards. While you can generate content specifically for Internet Explorer, it purposely generates standard, valid HTML and CSS by default. It focuses specifically on HTML and CSS, while other pieces of the Expression suite of products cover other aspects of development. It contains validation tools for CSS, HTML, and accessibility to ensure standards-based code is produced. If you’re interested in developing Web graphics, the Microsoft Expression Design tool is available.
  • Microsoft Office SharePoint Designer 2007: The other avenue for developers working with Microsoft technology is SharePoint Designer. It advertises itself as another FrontPage successor for developers with a focus on the Microsoft SharePoint platform. It fully integrates with SharePoint and provides limited support for Microsoft’s Web platform ASP.NET. It provides access to the many features of the SharePoint environment so Web developers can easily customize and enhance SharePoint-based sites. It is worth noting that you can develop basic sites with the tool, but it is not recommended. Like Expression Web Designer, it supports creating pages that adhere to Web standards with tools for checking CSS, HTML, and accessibility.
  • Visual Web Developer 2005 Express: This product facilitates the building of sophisticated Web sites without writing any code. It utilizes the ASP.NET platform, so sites are built using Microsoft technology. The key aspect of this tool is building sites and even backend data sources using drag-and-drop. It includes a built-in Web server for creating and testing Web pages on a single computer without using a development Web server, and it allows you to easily roll out an application via FTP. This product is meant to give developers an introduction to the Microsoft platform. It is the entry point for the more robust Visual Studio line of development tools.
  • Popfly: This add-on for the Visual Studio line simplifies the creation of Web pages, mashups, and so forth. It features an online community to share your work.
  • Silverlight: This is a cross-browser, cross-platform Visual Studio plug-in for delivering the next generation of Microsoft .NET-based media experiences and rich interactive applications for the Web. It is a direct competitor to Adobe’s Flash.

Note: I didn’t mention the more comprehensive Visual Studio versions for building Microsoft .NET-based applications; this list is meant to provide you with a sampling of Microsoft’s offerings for Web developers.

Which Web development tool is right for you?

The tool you choose comes down to your development role. If you focus on building sites that do not utilize underlying Microsoft technology, you can lean on the Expression Web Designer and feel confident with the results. Corporate developers with a SharePoint infrastructure can use the SharePoint Designer tool to enhance and customize their sites and, at the same time, be able to build sites that do not utilize SharePoint, so it covers all aspects of their Web development duties.

For those Web developers working with the ASP.NET platform while not being a coder, the Visual Web Developer 2005 Express IDE will suffice. It facilitates Web page authoring and editing using ASP.NET components and Web standards with no code (C#, VB.NET, J#, etc.) support. Developers focusing on rich Web applications along the lines of Adobe Flash will rely on the Sliverlight tool.

Personally, I often have my hands deep in .NET code, so the Visual Studio line of products fit most of my needs. However, I am more involved with SharePoint-based solutions, so the SharePoint Designer comes in handy; also, it is easy to use for basic Web sites with no SharePoint or ASP.NET integration.

A moment of silence for FrontPage

With FrontPage being laid to rest after nine years, it is worth examining why it was never fully embraced by the Web development community. The main complaint with FrontPage was its lack of adherence to Web standards. The messy code with countless tables in its generated pages drew the ire of the Web development community, but it did not deter widespread product usage. It often generated sites that worked well in Internet Explorer but nothing else. Microsoft vowed a stronger support for standards with its latest products while not always reaching this goal.

Numerous options

One of my complaints with Microsoft technologies and tools is the overabundance of options, which can overwhelm even seasoned developers. Microsoft is more geared toward specific tools these days as Web, SharePoint, and .NET developers have viable options with some overlap. Choosing the right tool is tied to daily development tasks and future needs.

What is your experience with past or present Microsoft development tools? Do you think Microsoft has made acceptable progress toward embracing Web standards? Share your thoughts and experience with the Web development community.

Tony Patton began his professional career as an application developer earning Java, VB, Lotus, and XML certifications to bolster his knowledge.


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